The grinning monster, fangs prominent, stared straight ahead with red, evil eyes. “Strange, strange” was all I could say out loud. We were in Alton, Illinois, seeing the Piasa Bird for the first time.
There are countless small towns in Middle America, though few could rival Alton and its neighbors for diversity. My suggestion – visit in the Fall to sample the attractions along the Great River Road, amid a multihued backdrop. This scenic road hugs the Mississippi river.
Prior to my visit I knew little about Alton besides the legend of the Piasa Bird (roughly pronounced pie-a-saw). Although calling it a “bird” is a bit misleading.
This Native American bluff painting of a dragon-like being has become an icon of the region. Recreated over the years, the picture was first documented by Father Jacques Marquette in 1673, during his explorations of the Mississippi river. Such an odd image begs the question why and also why in this particular spot?
The most often-repeated tale says the bird was so enormous; it could easily carry off a full-grown deer in its talons. The Illini tribes believed it devoured human flesh and for years attempted to destroy the monster. Eventually a brave Chief concocted a plan to kill the beast. He succeeded and it’s said the painting was done to commemorate the important event. Whatever the origins, stop for a look at the Piasa Bird.
Pumpkin Pickin’ and ghost tour walkin’
What is autumn without pumpkins? Whether brightly painted or carved and lit, these round orange faces grace our front porches as welcoming beacons. While in the Alton area you can wander the pumpkin patch in search of the perfect specimen or maybe two.
Eckert’s Country Store and Farms has three farms where “pick-your-own” is popular. You can pick both apples and pumpkins in this fashion. Just off the Great River Road, Eckert’s of Grafton has a relaxing country setting with truly fresh air only found in rural settings. You’ll also find an extensive children’s play area, a retail shop with bakery and haunted hayrides. Eckert’s continues to expand its offerings so check out the calendar of events on their website to learn more.
Partly because of its long and varied history, Alton has been called “one of America’s most haunted small towns.” Walk the streets of downtown by candlelight as guides recount the haunted history.
You may spot former minister Philip Mercer haunting the First Unitarian Church, or strange happenings at the spooky McPike Mansion. Once a showplace, the mansion has suffered from the ravages of time and vandals, thus assuring the ghosts feel right at home!
The building that previously housed the Mineral Springs Hotel, opened in 1917, claims not one specter, but three.
Ghost tours in October and November come highly recommended (by me) and sell out quickly, so plan to make reservations well in advance.
The Great Godfrey Maze
Not unlike Kevin Costner in the movie Field of Dreams, the folks behind The Great Godfrey Maze had a similar inspiration. Remember the mantra, “If you build it, they will come?” Well, fate smiled and it happened in Godfrey as it did in the film. They built their corn maze and people came. A popular annual tradition was born.
The maze operates every fall. The corn field is cut into a unique design, only seen from the air. The design is not only a picture, but also a corn maze set within seven acres.
Each year the maze design changes. How is this gigantic piece of artwork created, you might wonder? The maze is cut by professionals – who knew someone specialized in cutting corn mazes? But apparently they do. Some of their past designs in Godfrey have been an eagle, a riverboat, and Lady Liberty with an American flag. One year the corn was cut to represent the famous Piasa Bird. You can easily get lost in this maze, since all corn stalks are very much alike, but that’s part of the fun.
Little ones love the huge sandbox filled with shelled corn and they have their own mini-maze made from bales of hay.
To maxi “maze” your experience, plan a visit during the annual corn festival. They offer all things corn-related, such as the corn Olympics, corn cook-off or shooting off the corn cannon. Don’t they think of everything? In past years, air hot balloon and helicopter rides were very popular, providing a way to see the full extent of the design from the air.
Finally, if you like the sensation of being lost and scared, their maze is haunted with ghosts and goolies on select dates.
It’s About the Rivers
Some feel the drive along the river is at its best in the fall, when the palate of colors transforms from a myriad of greens to orange, yellow and red. The stone bluffs, gently flowing water and trees, make a striking contrast.
Whatever the season, visit the two museums related to the strategic position of the converging rivers.
The National Great Rivers Museum opened in 2003 and is dedicated to telling the story of the mighty Mississippi River and other great rivers. This particular location is significant because it sits at the confluence of three major rivers, the Missouri, the Illinois and the Mississippi.
It’s twenty interactive displays explain the importance of the river, inhabitants of the water, and the river through time. The museum is situated at the site of Melvin Price Lock and Dam #26.
Thanks to the rivers, Lewis and Clark left their mark at the State Historic Site and Camp River Dubois. It was at this camp, a bit south of Alton, where the men made their final preparations for the arduous journey ahead. Such a lengthy trip through uncharted terrain required training and thorough outfitting. The men stayed at the camp from December of 1803 to May of 1804, before setting out on their quest to reach the Pacific Ocean.
At the State Historic Site, watch the 15-minute film titled: At Journey’s Edge to gain a better understanding of what transpired. Also inside, a full-scale keelboat replica demonstrates how materials and supplies were carried on the Lewis and Clark expedition. The keelboat has been neatly sliced in half length-wise, so you can see both outside and inside.
We’re not finished yet!
Remember I mentioned diversity? The final and most important Lincoln-Douglas Debate was held in Alton in October 1858. Although Lincoln lost the election, these debates launched him into national prominence, which eventually led to his election as President. Visit the square where the debate took place to stand in the footsteps of Lincoln.
Life-like statues of the two statesmen keep the famous debates frozen forever in time. For me, the statues demonstrated the very personal, home-grown nature of politics during those early years. All you needed to run for office was an interested audience and room enough for the candidates to stand. How times have changed!
Because of the area’s neighboring slave state Missouri, runaways found refuge in the free land surrounding Alton. The city was a major stop along the Underground Railroad, concealing slaves in barns, caves and basements. Legend has it one such stop was 15 feet below street level and included a series of hidden rooms and passages. They were the Enos Apartments, still located on East Third Street in Alton.
Ever hear of Robert Wadlow? He was considered the tallest man in the world and Alton was his home. See his life size statue (he was almost nine feet tall) and a replica of a custom chair in the park on College Avenue. You’ll be amazed. Although Robert was born a normal eight pounds in 1918, a pituitary gland problem caused his unusual growth.
Sadly, the gentle giant of Alton died at the young age of 22, but Alton is making sure he’ll never be forgotten. Having a photo snapped while standing next to Robert, has become a “must-do” for visitors.
Along your journey you might hear Alton referred to as Pietown. It was a name given to Upper Alton during the Mexican War of 1846. Hungry soldiers encamped nearby brought home baked pies from the ladies of Alton. Obviously smart business women, these gals saw a need and responded, filling bellies and their bank accounts.
A great getaway awaits, where the Mississippi flows in Southwestern Illinois. Alton and her sister cities will gladly welcome you.